Blake reflects on path from small town to big leagues

November 18th, 2022

This story was excerpted from John Denton's Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

How in the world, both you and Dusty Blake might still be wondering, does a person go from Candor, N.C. (population: 840 in 2020) to a job as head pitching coach of the tradition-rich St. Louis Cardinals?

“Man, that’s probably a million-dollar question, and I don’t know that I can give a great answer there,” Blake said while hurriedly reliving his unlikely journey.

“I came from a small town, and if you’re talented, you’re going to have some success, but when I got to Appalachian State [as a pitcher], the competition increased tremendously, and I learned that if I didn’t figure things out, this isn’t going to work. That instigated some of my knowledge of wanting to understand what’s going on in the pitching world. I had an opportunity to get into coaching after playing, and I’ve tried to reach out and connect to people more experienced and smarter than me. I’ve been able to do some good things and I’ve adapted and built some success.”

Blake, a Cardinals pitching strategist the previous two seasons, was named head pitching coach on Nov. 6. Mike Maddux, the Cardinals' pitching guru the past five seasons, chose not to return, because he wants to dial back his work duties after spending the past 36 years at the MLB level.

The Cardinals wasted no time handing those responsibilities to Blake, a 40-year-old baseball lifer who has a knack for relating to pitchers such as Adam Wainwright and Jack Flaherty with his tireless work and his analytically driven manner of aiding hurlers. Cards manager Oli Marmol’s prediction: “I’d say in three to five years, he’ll be viewed as one of the brighter minds in the game.”

To put himself in the position for such a job, Blake had to dedicate his life to the art of pitching and be willing to go anywhere the job took him. That pursuit resulted in a winding journey that trekked through Catawba College (2006-07), Wofford ('08-11), USC-Upstate ('12), Pfeiffer, N.C., University ('13-17) and Duke ('18-20).
He modernized the Blue Devils' pitching approach via a heavy dependence on data, video analysis and analytics. Blake also helped the Duke staff set a school record with a 37-inning scoreless streak, as well as school records for strikeouts in 2018 and ’19. The school recently registered its highest-drafted player (Bryce Jarvis, No. 18 with the D-backs in 2020).

That caught the attention of the Cardinals, a franchise looking to bring more of an analytical approach to its pitching. Blake’s willingness to dive deep into pitching mechanics, embrace the mountains of data and to put those numbers into gameplan strategies helped St. Louis rank fourth among NL teams in ERA (3.79) in 2022.
“Too much of anything is not going to be successful, in my opinion,” Blake said of analytics. “We have to have a broad range of how we’re adapting to the resources we get. I kind of saw myself with that [analytics] stuff as a filter. I’m willing to share anything players feel they need access to, but, as we key in on what makes a guy what he is, analytics can be used to complicate or simplify stuff. That’s the lane I live in with pitchers. They want solutions that are simple and make sense.” 
Blake’s devotion to the study of pitching will take him back to his native North Carolina, where he will conduct his annual “Pitching 360” clinic for pitching coaches of all levels this weekend. Former Cardinals lefty Andrew Miller and MLB pitching coaches Caleb Cotham (Phillies), Derek Johnson (Reds) and Pete Maki (Twins) will speak alongside Blake at the summit. Next season, when he’s working for the Cardinals, Blake will bring a touch of small-town North Carolina to MLB with him. 
“I won’t have a ‘Claw’ or a signature like that,,” Blake joked, referring to Maddux’s patented move. “But I have been criticized for walking slow to the mound. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but it’s more about if we need a time out or to slow the game down.”
Slow, like life back in Candor, N.C., where Blake’s unlikeliest of pitching journeys began.